The feeble stance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on the South China Sea in the past has been made even weaker by the sudden shift of Philippine foreign policy under the Duterte administration. As the chairman for this year’s summit, the Philippines could have used this opportunity to rally the Southeast Asian states to support and uphold the arbitration ruling that it won in July 2016, affirming the rights of littoral states under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Instead, President Duterte decided not to talk to China about the ruling for now – while he resets diplomatic ties and secures economic aid from China.
Apparently, the Philippines (under Duterte) has elected to move on. Even with reports of Chinese presence and activity within the 12 nautical mile territorial sea of Pag-asa island, the current administration chooses to keep silent and is too mindful of how the Chinese would feel about any pushback the Duterte government might take with regard to the issue. The decision not to file a diplomatic protest or to hold closed-door negotiations, despite the Chinese militarization activities and what Duterte acknowledged as the threat of war, brings into question whether Philippine national interest is indeed being prioritized by his administration. A diplomatic protest would at the very least signal to China, the international community and the Filipino people that the government is doing its part in protecting Philippine sovereignty.
This sudden change in Philippines-China relations shows that Chinese influence remains to be one of the greatest challenges to ASEAN centrality when it comes to the South China Sea disputes. This is evident in the statements of Philippine foreign secretary Alan Peter Cayetano and the outcome of the Joint Communiqué of the 50th Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, which noticeably emphasized the benefits of ASEAN cooperation with China in the disputed area. If countries like Vietnam and Malaysia had not been more adamant in their position compared with the Philippines, the communique might not have mentioned the serious concern about reclamation and other alarming activities of China in the area.
Other ASEAN claimants do not share the same approach as the Philippines. Contrary to the Philippines’ softer stance, Indonesia has used the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration to its benefit by renaming the disputed area within its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea. Aside from continuously challenging China by pushing for tougher language in the joint communique and calling for a ‘legally binding’ Code of Conduct, Vietnam plans to strengthen its cooperation with a strategic partner – India – not only in procurement of military equipment but also in seeking a greater Indian role in exploring oil and gas in the disputed area. Vietnam has also sought a deeper defense cooperation with the United States, and secured a promise of a visit from a U.S. aircraft carrier by 2018. Malaysia, which had always been cautious about its actions in the South China Sea due to its close economic ties with China, also continuously increases it naval defense capabilities and military spending. Recently, Malaysia also set fire to illegal fishing boats that had been confiscated in the disputed area.
Duterte’s shift and the rejuvenation of Philippines-China ties has given China an opportunity to undermine ASEAN centrality when it comes to the disputes. The major power is expected to take advantage of the weaker ASEAN stance and to fast track the affirmation of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) while it can still control and dictate the rules. However, what good would a non-legally binding code of conduct have for the claimant ASEAN countries? It would be like the 2002 Declaration of Conduct which failed to deter China from pursuing reclamation and aggressive behavior towards fishermen and citizens of other claimant states – a mere document that does not hold any aggressor liable. As Professor Carl Thayer argues, a non-binding COC would be a disaster of the first order. It will leave the ASEAN claimant states no option but to eventually capitulate to China if the situation ever leads to the use of force.
On the other hand, a legally binding COC would provide assurance to the smaller and weaker claimants that might does not make right, and that all claimant states will be equally subject to international law. It would be a stable foundation of trust and proof of China’s benign intentions for Southeast Asia. While the COC was envisioned as “a set of norms to guide the conduct of parties and promote maritime cooperation in the South China Sea”, ASEAN and China should find a way to make violators accountable for various aggressive actions like harrassment of fishermen and causing irreparable environmental damage.
Other South China Sea claimants (Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei) that have depended and benefitted from the actions of the Philippines in the past now need to take a more forward and stronger role not only by defending their respective interests but also by giving more importance to ASEAN centrality in managing the SCS disputes. Economic cooperation with China should not make the Philippines or any ASEAN country complacent when it comes to matters of national defense and security. It would be naïve to think that China will back down or halt improvements in its occupied islands just because of the positive development of its relations. ASEAN states, moreover, cannot merely rely on any single member or its external partners in solving the disputes. To play a more effective role, ASEAN should put forward the common interests of its member states and have a unified stance on the South China Sea.
The COC may be the start of a lasting and peaceful resolution of the disputes between ASEAN claimant states and China, which will indeed be beneficial for the region. However, any realist would say that this depends on how fairly and firmly the agreement will be implemented, considering the complex disputes and power asymmetry in the South China Sea.
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